ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The 19th century English writer Mary Ann Evans, known by her penname George Eliot, was once described as magnificently ugly. Her contemporary, American writer Henry James described her dull, gray eye and a huge mouth full of uneven teeth. But he went on to say that, quote, "In this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty."
James was not the only one to find Eliot enthralling. Rebecca Mead is out with a new book about George Eliot, specifically about the novel "Middlemarch." Here's Meg Wolitzer with a review.
MEG WOLITZER: The first time I tried to read "Middlemarch," I got 20 pages in and put it down. My teenage self was feeding at the time on Pearl S. Buck and "Go Ask Alice." "Middlemarch" seemed hard and dry. But then when I was older and less antsy, I tried it again. This time I was swept in.
Rebecca Mead never had my problem. Her first time out with "Middlemarch," she was 17. It became her touchstone. She re-read it at critical moments in her life, and she wrote about it, too. The result is her unusual and deeply felt new book, "My Life in Middlemarch." It's a mash-up of literary criticism, her own memoir and a biography of George Eliot.
Mead herself is a sympathetic narrator. We learn little bits about her seaside childhood, life at Oxford, love affairs, marriage. I really enjoyed these sections, and I would have been happy to read more of them. But she doesn't take up a lot of space with her own story, which is deliberate. The big figure here, the one whose presence dominates, is George Eliot.
Mary Ann Evans chose George as her pseudonym because it was the first name of her life partner, George Lewes. One early biographer speculated that the last name night might also honor him: To L, I owe it. Eliot. Also on display in the book is the heroine of "Middlemarch," Dorothea Brooke, and her terrible marriage to the Reverend Casaubon. It's been a long time since I read the novel, and my most recent encounter was in the form of a BBC mini-series.
But it doesn't matter. When Mead describes the characters, even minor ones who I forgot about, it was like being at a dinner party where a really smart person is talking about people I've never met. By the end of the meal, I felt like I knew them. Mead also describes her own experiences with the book, and she wrestles in a bigger way with what novels do, at least great ones, or what we do with them.
A book may not tell us how to live our own lives, she writes, but our own lives can teach us how to read a book. When she becomes a stepmother to a house full of boys, she searches "Middlemarch" for clues about how to step parent,and doesn't find any. But later, after she learns that Eliot also had stepsons, she realizes that experience infused the book with the idea of all that might be gained from opening one's heart wider.
She describes the theme of the novel as growing out of self-centeredness. And I got excited when I read that. And I thought, yes, yes, that's exactly what novels can do. She's writing about the power of fiction and the power of George Eliot. All of this brings up the obvious and very reasonable question: Do you have to have read "Middlemarch" to read "My Life in Middlemarch"?
I'm reminded of the old ad for rye bread that went, you don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's. And I'm certain that you don't have to read or re-read "Middlemarch" to love this extraordinary book. But I have the feeling that you'll probably want to anyway.
SIEGEL: The book is "My Life in Middlemarch" by Rebecca Mead. Our reviewer is author Meg Wolitzer. Her latest novel is "The Interestings."
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